Leading on solutions vs. problems vs. values

February 25, 2010 · 1 min read

Some managers—the pointy-haired boss variety—think their job is to tell people what to do. They focus on communicating solutions. If the website is slow, they tell their people to optimize the database queries. (Hopefully they at least focus on getting alignment with their reports, instead of managing by fiat.)

Better managers focus on communicating problems. When they have alignment on problems, they query for judgment about the solutions. They just point out that the website is slow, and they ask their reports how best to fix it.

I think the best managers, the true leaders, focus at a higher level still—on communicating values. When they have alignment on values, their employees are able to identify the problems themselves, and are motivated to solve them. They communicate ahead of time that a good user experience is important and that performance is part of that. When the site is slow, their people notice it themselves and know how to prioritize.

Like many of the best management and leadership techniques, communicating values isn't something you can do at the last minute. It's a long, slow process. You have to start it early and work on it consistently and patiently over time. It's not a way to fight a fire. But it is a way to grow a garden.

These days I do most of my writing at The Roots of Progress. If you liked this essay, check out my other work there.


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